Matawhero Church in Gisborne.

The 150th anniversaries of several brutal events in our local and national history has prompted Ernie Barrington to dip into the historical records — to remember “episodes that call out to be remembered and not to be airbrushed away”.

Matawhero, just outside Gisborne (Turanganui), is where I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. These days, they grow grapes and avocados there, as well as maize, citrus trees and other crops. It’s 20,000 fertile hectares known as the Gisborne Plains or the Poverty Bay Flats.

In 1946, my parents, Fred and Clarice Barrington, established a market garden there, on Bushmere Road. It was a challenge, but they came from a farming background, and they knew what they were in for.

My three younger brothers and I went to the local school, Makaraka Primary, and it was there that we first heard about Te Kooti and his guerilla followers and the part they’d played in the “Matawhero Massacre”.

We heard how, back in 1868, they came down from the hills, forded the Waipaoa River, murdered the Matawhero settlers in the dead of night, and set fire to their houses.

In Sunday School, at the historic Matawhero Church, we were told that this was one of the few buildings left standing after the raid (true), and that some settlers sought refuge there during the attack (unlikely).

Last year and this year are the 150th anniversaries of several brutal events in our local and national history. There was the “Matawhero Massacre”, in 1868. The “Siege of Ngatapa”, in 1869. And a few years before that, in 1865, there had been the “Siege of Waerenga-a-hika”.

As kids growing up in Matawhero, we weren’t inclined to question the world around us. It didn’t occur to us to ask why Te Kooti attacked the Matawhero settlers. And why he targeted particular people.

Through all of my years of school — at Makaraka Primary, Gisborne Intermediate, and then Gisborne High School — no teacher ever explained what happened at Matawhero. Nor was I, or any of my contemporaries, ever taught anything about the uprisings in or around Gisborne in the 1860s. They were simply never mentioned.

Instead, in our history classes at high school, we learned mostly about England. I left school knowing more about Henry the Eighth’s England than I did about our local or national history. We did have some discussion about the “Māori Wars”, but very little about the Treaty of Waitangi, and certainly nothing about the breaches of the Treaty.

We heard a lot about the arrival of Captain Cook in 1769, and his heroic journey in the Endeavour. But there was hardly a mention of the even more heroic Polynesian waka voyages to New Zealand from the Pacific, some 500 years before Cook. There was a sense that this aspect of our culture and history was not important. Nothing to celebrate there, apparently.

In the fourth form at Gisborne High, there were two Māori classmates with the same surname as Te Kooti Rikirangi. I asked them once if they were his descendants, and they said they were but confessed to knowing little about him. My impression was that they were uncomfortable, perhaps even ashamed, to be associated with the name. So the silence in the wider Gisborne community about the story of Te Kooti was echoed, so it seemed, within some of his own family.

Silences help to mask truths that are unpalatable — and enlightenment, if it comes, can be a slow process.

Despite my interest in history, my awareness of historical issues grew slowly. It came long after I’d left Gisborne to study at university in Christchurch — where I graduated, in 1963, with a Bachelor of Science from Canterbury University.

My history education didn’t begin until the 1980s when, sandwiched between family and work, I embarked on part-time studies and landed a second degree in history and sociology, in 1989, from the University of Auckland. Those studies helped me find the answers to some of those why questions.

Books have also helped me understand the events leading up to, and following on, from the 1860s. Two of my Gisborne compatriots, Witi Ihimaera and Anne Salmond, have written compellingly about Gisborne and its history. Judith Binney, James Belich, and Vincent O’Malley have been among other writers to fill in the historical gaps left by our education system.

Then, of course, there have been the hearings of the Waitangi Tribunal and, of particular interest to Gisborne people, the Turanganui-a-Kiwa Claim, 2004.

These voices made me realise that, in my schooldays, we’d been getting our history from the perspective of the dominant Pākehā culture. Māori voices and alternative explanations weren’t available to us.

So this year, in retirement, I‘ve had a chance to revisit some of those unanswered questions and fudged explanations from my youth. In doing so, I especially noted Moana Jackson’s column here on E-Tangata about the “deliberate misremembering of history that has obscured the reality of what colonisation really was, and is.”

That “misremembering”, he wrote, had replaced the harsh reality of colonisation’s “racist violence and its illegitimate usurpation of power, with a feelgood rhetoric of Treaty-based good faith and Crown honour”.

Moana’s assessment is very true of my home town, Gisborne, which has had its fair share of historical feelgood stories and quite a bit of misremembering. So we have learned that 24 Māori in the district signed the Treaty of Waitangi. That there was harmony, and intermarriage, between Māori and early Pākehā settlers. And that, eventually, there was a “successful” settlement with the Crown.

However, the anniversaries over the last year or so are reminders that the very same Crown was instrumental in brutal racist episodes in Gisborne in the 1860s — episodes that call out to be remembered and not to be airbrushed away.

In researching this, I went back to the prominent newspapers of the 1860s to see what they had to say about the major events. What I discovered was that, while the reports of the events in Gisborne were not particularly distorted, the motivations were unexamined. No one asked “why?”. Why was Te Kooti so vengeful? What did he have against the Matawhero people?

Well, it turns out that he had quite a few reasons to be aggrieved. He’d been treated very badly and illegally.

Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki

Te Kooti was born in Turanganui. He was Ngāti Maru, a hapū of Rongowhakaata, at Pā-o-Kahu. But, unlike most Māori in the area, he didn’t take up the Pai Mārire (Hau Hau) faith. One of their central tenets was to resist land confiscations, which was definitely an issue in Turanganui at that time.

In 1865, about 500-800 supporters of Pai Mārire in Turanganui were living at a pā at Waerenga-a-hika, a short distance north-west of the main settlement. They were seen as a serious threat by the colonial authorities, and Donald McLean, the Crown’s principal agent on the East Coast, saw a chance to put an end to their influence.

So he used a combination of Ngāti Porou and colonial forces to attack the pā at Waerenga-a-hika. In the siege that followed, 71 Māori defenders were killed, along with 11 attackers. The pā was completely destroyed.

The siege was a case of the Crown and its allies attacking its own people without good cause. Indeed, the Waitangi Tribunal Report (2004) on the Turanganui-a-Kiwa claim, found “that the attack was unlawful and in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi”.

Unfortunately, Te Kooti got embroiled in the aftermath of the siege. He had sided with the Crown and Ngāti Porou in the siege but then was later accused of espionage by the local magistrate, Major Reginald  Biggs. He was arrested and, along with about 100 prisoners from the siege, he was expelled to the Chatham Islands. Our very own 1860s gulag.

This was an illegal act because there were never any charges laid, and no trial or convictions. It was made worse because the detention duration was indeterminate. And it was to have serious repercussions.

Through a well-executed plan by Te Kooti, he and his followers eventually escaped from the Chathams in a captured schooner and landed back at Whareongaonga, south of Gisborne, in 1868.

This got the concerned attention of the colonial authorities, especially Turanganui’s resident magistrate Major Biggs, who sent Māori emissaries instructing Te Kooti and his followers to surrender all their weapons and “await the decision of the government as to their future”.

It was an audacious instruction by Biggs, seeing that he’d had a hand in sending them, without trial, to the Chathams in the first place. So it was unlikely that Te  Kooti would take much notice of him. He sent Biggs a message to say he and his followers just wanted to be left alone. Te Kooti’s intention was to move out of the district, but he was thwarted in those efforts.

Among his concerns was that 30 acres of his land at Matawhero had been sold, and some Matawhero Māori had been complicit in the sale. Major Biggs was one of those who’d settled on the land.

As a result of these and other tensions, Te Kooti went on the offensive in late November, 1868, and, in a well-organised lightning strike, he hit Pākehā and Māori settlers at Matawhero east of the Waipaoa River.

Biggs and his family were killed, along with other military officers — and it was seen as utu directed at those who’d wronged Te Kooti. Of the 50-70 Matawhero men, women and children who were killed, about half of them were Māori. Another 300 Māori were taken as prisoners.

That action by Te Kooti and his followers prompted considerably more violence once the Crown and its allies mobilised against him. This included Ngāti Porou and Kahungunu contingents, and Crown forces led by Colonel Whitmore. Te Kooti was eventually forced to retreat to a mountain-top pā in back country Ngatapa.

Members of the 313-strong Armed Constabulary pictured in Turanga in 1868. The Waitangi Tribunal said it believed the men fought in the Siege of Ngatapa. Colonial forces at Ngatapa also included 370 Ngāti Porou led by Rapata Wahawaha. (Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library.)

On January 1, 1869, government forces under Whitmore stormed the pa and, by January 4, it was besieged and around 50 defenders had been killed. Te Kooti, who was never captured, and a number of his followers, escaped, but a large number of prisoners were taken and many of them (perhaps 128) were summarily executed by the Ngāti Porou auxiliaries.

Not one of those executed had been charged, tried, or convicted of any offence. But it was sanctioned by Whitmore. The Waitangi Tribunal found that the executions were unlawful and in breach of the Crown’s obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi, if not under the rules of war then in force in the British Empire.

I mentioned earlier that these accounts, and especially the Māori voices, weren’t available to us in the 1940s and 50s. The acts by Te Kooti in 1868 at Matawhero, where innocent people were murdered, were unconscionable, but Te Kooti’s illegal imprisonment by colonial forces was also immoral and indefensible. And, if it hadn’t been for his organisational skills and the Ringatū faith that he developed, he and his followers might well have died on the Chatham Islands.

This brings us to the anniversaries. In November last year, the Matawhero Presbyterian Church held a service of Remembrance and Reconciliation, Lament and Healing. It was led by Rev Mary Peterson. In that spirit, the events of 1868 were referred to as the Matawhero Tragedy. Descendants of some of the families who were killed, including the Biggs and the Wilsons, spoke at the service, as well as a Ringatū priest, a descendant of Te Kooti’s followers.

A little earlier, in September, 2018, Te Papa and Te Tira Whakaari Trust co-hosted Te Kooti: Ngā Reo o Te Motu (Te Kooti: Voices from the Iwi). It was a one-day symposium to activate discussion about the legacy of Te Kooti. During the symposium, speakers from a number of iwi challenged the myths and shared kōrero about his positive influence in their lives over generations.

At Waerenga-a-hika, there is now a handsome six-metre tall memorial to the conflict that took place there in 1865. That was unveiled in 2015. The atrocity that occurred there and the Māori who perished there haven’t been forgotten.

We can’t unmake the past, but we can at least remember it honestly.

I have just turned 80, and I can’t help reflecting on the difference it would have made if I had known all the history that I now know. I had Māori friends at high school and university, and although those friendships were always sound, it would have deepened my understanding of them to know how their backgrounds differed from mine, and how Māori in my home town suffered with land confiscations and the devaluing of their culture.

And it would have armed me better to counter the frequent stereotypes about Māori and Pacific Island people that I have encountered in my home town and elsewhere — especially, but not exclusively, among uninformed Pākehā.

Learning this history has changed me, in the sense that my antennae is always alert to distorted racial stereotypes, and to histories slanted toward the dominant culture. 

Ernie Barrington is a retired 80-year-old Pākehā who wishes he had learned more about the history of the place where he grew up. He was formerly on the teaching staff at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Professional Development. 


© E-Tangata, 2019

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